No child left behind: making it work in a rural state

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(Host) Eighteen months ago, President Bush signed into law a sweeping educational reform plan called the “No Child Left Behind Act.” The president says he created the law to improve accountability for federal education dollars, give parents more choice, and ensure no child falls between the cracks.

Most agree that the goals are commendable. But as VPR’s Nina Keck reports, in the first of a two part series, many educators say making the law work in a small, rural state like Vermont will be daunting.

(Keck) Under the No Child Left Behind policy, each state must design its own tests to measure the performance of its students and its schools. Vermont already tests public school students in the 4th, 8th and 10th grades. Educators believe those tests can provide useful data, but many caution that tests alone paint too narrow a picture. And in a state where most schools have fewer than 100 students, many argue that standardized test results become less accurate.

(Sound from a third grade classroom)
“What does that look like to you Cody?”
“A plus sign.”
“A plus sign. Does everyone have that one? What happens when you flip that one around? It’s going to look the same….”

(Keck) At the Leicester Elementary School, there are 14 students in Patricia Carter’s third grade class. On this particular morning, they’re working on math problems. The school’s kindergarten has eight children, the sixth grade class 20. According to Vermont’s Education Department, you need 170 students per grade level to produce statistically valid test results. Leicester Principal Carol Eckels says to get reliable data at their school, you’d need to look at test scores over 10 years not two.

(Eckels) “I mean, I’m talking about basing the 2nd grade results on 8 children. All you need is one child who refuses to take the test in the middle because he’s tired – and that happened last year. And no evidence of achievement will come across the record for that child.”

(Keck) Leicester is among 28 schools in Vermont identified this year as not adequately meeting state standards. Eckels says for many small schools, landing on that list has become like a game of chance.

(Eckels) “Granted our scores could be higher – we had a really good class followed by a class of children who weren’t as academically capable as the others. So our scores didn’t go up. And if it didn’t happen this year, it’d happen next year. It’s going to happen in every rural school.”

(Keck) Because of concerns about size, federal education officials now allow some states to average test scores over two or three years. Vermont has also been negotiating with federal officials to provide a small school review for some of the state’s tiniest schools. That would enable school officials to provide the state with things like student portfolios and literacy assessments in addition to test scores. Bill Mathis is Superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union.

(Mathis) “One of the things that becomes hidden here is that, when you look at schools in Vermont, you’re going to see a preponderance of poor schools. Meaning, schools that have a student body of poor children.”

(Keck) Mathis says schools that are both small and poor will be hardest hit by the No Child Left Behind law. He points to Leicester Elementary School as a good example. Over a third of Leicester’s 84 students receive free or reduced cost lunches; 58% receive special education. The town has no preschool.

Principal Carol Eckels says the challenges are enormous, but instead of helping, she says the No Child Left Behind policy takes resources away. For instance, if Leicester’s test scores don’t show adequate yearly progress for two years in a row, parents must be notified and students offered the choice to go to another school at Leicester’s expense. If test scores remain low for three years in a row, Leicester can lose some or all of its federal funding.

Eckels says the money must be made available to parents to educate their children as they see fit, whether that means having them tutored or sending them elsewhere.

(Eckels) “If we lost one child to another school and had to pay their tuition that’s 1% out of our budget. So it’ll devastate the school if we lose children and money has to follow them, plus transportation.”

(Keck) And in many parts of Vermont, there isn’t another school nearby. So sending a child elsewhere may mean a 40-mile bus ride. But others argue that all schools must be held accountable.

Libby Sternberg is executive director for Vermonters for Better Education, a nonprofit organization committed to education reform and the promotion of school choice.

(Sternberg) “Schools that are worried about losing too many students, that troubles me. If they think that as soon as they can open the door to choice, that they’re going to lose such a substantial number of students that it’s going to harm them financially – I mean what does that say about their own impression of their school, their own faith in their own ability?”

(Keck) She says if a Vermont school is forced to close because of continued poor performance or because too many students choose to leave –

(Sternberg) “I think our response should be actually gratitude that we’re finding out now that there was a serious problem at that school, before another generation of students goes through it.”

(Keck) The U.S. Department of Education says it’s looking at ways to address the problems in rural states. But the department has no plans to water down the accountability of the law.

Bill Mathis, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, says because Vermont has such high standards, ensuring that every student meets them will be nearly impossible. He doesn’t think Vermont should lower the bar. But he says it’s frustrating, because states with lower standards will find it much easier to comply with the new law.

(Mathis) “Perversely it identifies more schools in a high achieving state as failing than in a low achieving state. Vermont on the state tests averages 22 to 32 percentile points higher than the national average. That’s a huge increase over the nation. But what happens is because we have very high standards, 46% of Vermont students are below these very high standards. And so this means that very high achieving schools are labeled as failing. What happens is, it rewards the wrong things.”

(Keck) Mathis says that under No Child Left Behind, 80% of Vermont schools will be identified as failing within three years. Because of that, some worry that schools will begin narrowing curriculums and teaching to the test. There’s concern the arts may be cut and some schools may have to close. But Governor Jim Douglas says it’s time for everyone to step back and change their attitude.

(Douglas) “There certainly are going to be hurdles. There are challenges, such as financing, but we need to find a way to make it work.”

(Keck) Back at Leicester Elementary School, teachers say a can-do attitude is all some small schools have. A bond that would help pay for a much needed addition has been voted down four times by local residents. While a number of Leicester’s students have gone on to be valedictorian at the local high school, what makes headlines is the relatively small number of students who do poorly on standardized tests. Teachers say giving these kids the help they need is a priority. But with so little space, they admit too often that help takes place in a storage closet, a hallway or a noisy cafeteria.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.

Related links:
Vermont Education Department has extensive information on how Vermont in complying with law.
Federal government’s NCLB web site
New Hampshire Public Radio presents information, links and an online forum on how the law affects that state.

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